Forget Real Madrid: Fernando Gago and the draw of home

Given the amount of money in European football, especially in the major leagues, the inevitability of the best players on the planet plying their club trade in the continent is all-encompassing.

When it comes to South American players, there is generally a cut-off point where the best become too good for their domestic leagues and as such head to European football for fortune and fame.

When looking at the 23-man squad selected by Argentina boss Gerardo Martino for the upcoming Copa America campaign, it is little surprise that only three are not employed by European clubs.

What is something of a shock is that a player of Fernando Gago’s considerable ability is one of them.

The gifted ball-playing defensive midfielder has had his time in Europe and opted for a return to boyhood club Boca Juniors in 2013, despite the fact that he is still now only 29.

Undoubtedly good enough to play in Spain, Italy or England, the Argentine midfielder’s decision to return to Buenos Aires feels premature to a certain degree.

Gago’s emergence from Los Xeneizes’ youth academy marked potential for the next Argentine superstar in the minds of many, with this talented and tenacious star an instant fans’ favourite at Boca.

From developing into a rounded midfielder at La Bombonera, it became almost immediately apparent that the Ciudadela-born man would need to head overseas to continue to challenge himself and gain the level of notoriety that he deserved.

The time came for Gago to head to Europe following the cultured midfielder playing an essential role in Boca claiming two Primera Division titles and the Copa Sudamericana, with no shortage of high-profile suitors.

Gago moved to Real Madrid at the beginning of 2007, with compatriot Gonzalo Higuaín also joining the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu outfit from River Plate during the same period.

Despite his young age and having joined one of the biggest clubs in world football, the Argentine was installed straight into the Madrid team and played his part in the capital city side’s La Liga triumph with stellar second half of the season performances.

In his first full campaign in Spain in 2007-08, Gago played arguably the best football of his career and was a stalwart in the Los Blancos outfit that retained the domestic title.

However, over the next two seasons the South American’s perceived importance started to slip, with injuries also starting to take their toll.

Fernando GagoBy the time José Mourinho arrived in Madrid in 2010, Gago had been relegated to fringe status, with Xabi Alonso the crux of the side’s midfield and similar to the Argentine in style.

A loan spell at Roma followed to allow the star more consistent football, but under now Barcelona boss Luis Enrique the Giallorossi toiled and finished the 2011-12 Serie A season in seventh place.

Gago displayed glimpses of his considerable ability but the Stadio Olimpico was seemingly not the best place for his talents to be harboured.

Madrid opted to offload him the following summer to Valencia, but struggling for form and fitness Gago was sent on loan to Vélez Sarsfield.

The following summer, in a bid to rekindle a career that had moved sideways, Gago returned to Boca and has been there for the last two years.

Although an important member of his boyhood club once again, there is certainly a feel of what might have been at club level for Gago.

The highest-profile club fixture the midfielder has played in of late was the Copa Libertadores quarter-finals clashes with bitter rivals River Plate, but there is a feeling that Gago could well be starring regularly in the Champions League for a major European club had things worked out slightly differently.

Many believed that Gago would follow in the footsteps of famous countryman Fernando Redondo and become a legendary number five in the Spanish capital.

Despite this failing to materialise, Gago remains highly respected in his homeland – something showcased by him earning over 50 caps for the Albiceleste.

It appears that like other iconic Argentine players such as the mercurial Juan Román Riquelme, Gago’s European football was not befitting his ability.

The creative midfielder may well be eclipsed to some degree by the superstar names on show at this summer’s Copa America, but he looks set to play a role in his nation’s search for the South American crown.

Although not living up to his billing in Europe, despite two La Liga titles in Madrid, Gago will still go down as one of the most unique players of an Argentine generation and a mightily talented defensive midfielder.

By
I am a freelance football journalist from Northern Ireland living in Broome in Western Australia. I have worked for top media outlets such as FourFourTwo, goal.com, Soccerlens, Football Fancast and Here is the City. I am a lifelong and long-suffering Tottenham fan. Follow me on Twitter at @90MinsOnline
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